The revolt of the unpaid federal workers may have begun on Friday morning in Monroe, Louisiana, where two flights were canceled because TSA workers didn’t arrive to open the checkpoint.
American Airlines 3243 to Dallas-Fort Worth and Delta Airlines 3942 to Atlanta, both scheduled to depart at 6 a.m., became the first U.S. flights to be canceled during the government shutdown because of a shortage of TSA workers. Security screeners missed their second paycheck on Friday, and call-out rates have surged to between 7 and 10 percent, causing intermittent delays.
Monroe Regional Airport, which sees about 10 departures a day, usually opens its TSA checkpoint around 4 or 4:30 in the morning, staffed by a team of 10. Today, airport manager Ron Phillips said, only two workers showed up. The TSA arranged for replacement workers to be brought in from neighboring airports in Shreveport and Alexandria, and the checkpoint was up and running three hours later.
Like delays caused by staffing shortages that hit New York-area airports later on Friday morning, the disruption serves as a warning about the fragile state of the country’s flight infrastructure, which depends on tens of thousands of workers who have been working without pay for five weeks. The average TSA worker makes $35,000 a year, and the agency has said that elevated call-out rates can be explained by workers struggling to make ends meet. “Many employees are reporting that they are not able to report to work due to financial limitations,” the TSA says.
“Everyone was surprised this morning, it caught us all off guard,” said Philips. He said the TSA had reassured him earlier in the week that the five-week shutdown did not pose risks to airport operations—contrary to warnings from labor unions representing screeners and FAA employees. “We assumed since they didn’t receive their second paycheck they probably said, ‘The heck with it!’ ” Philips said. If so, he added, he couldn’t blame them.
The Monroe airport was back to normal by later Friday morning, but there’s still some suspense: A second shift is set to start at noon, and it’s not clear who is coming to work.